COLUMBIA — Medical marijuana supporters amended a legislative proposal to appease concerns of South Carolina medical and law enforcement leaders, but any efforts will likely fall short unless the federal government steps in.
A Senate panel led by the Statehouse's chief medical marijuana advocate, Sen. Tom Davis, added protections on the bill Wednesday that would prevent prescribing cannabis to law enforcement, truck drivers and heavy machinery operators and allow lawsuits against doctors who are negligent in prescribing marijuana.
Other changes included requiring doctors to have certain expertise before prescribing medical marijuana.
Despite not taking any public testimony, Davis' panel approved the bill to send it to the full Senate Medical Affairs Committee with more changes expected.
Leaders at the State Law Enforcement Division, S.C. Sheriffs' Association and S.C. Medical Association say they oppose medical marijuana no matter how the bill is changed unless its use wins approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration.
"I appreciate the efforts they've gone through, but the bottom line is that the only way it will be safe and people will know what they will be getting and they know it's going to be medicine is that we treat it like every other medicine, which is through the FDA," said Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the S.C. Sheriffs' Association.
SLED Maj. Frank O'Neal said FDA regulation is required along with prescription by doctors and dispensing by a licensed pharmacies.
"Never before have we determined what medicine is by popular vote or legislation," said O'Neal, who oversees narcotics for SLED.
Even if it's changed, Davis' bill circumvents the testing practices typically used before selling new drugs, said Dr. March Seabrook, president of the S.C. Medical Association.
"Without this process, the state Legislature effectively establishes itself as the FDA for South Carolina," he said.
An influential faith-centered group is also coming out against medical marijuana.
The Palmetto Family Council has concerns about allowing medical marijuana in the state and has plans of releasing a report Thursday, said Joshua Putnam, the group's president.
Davis, R-Beaufort, said he hopes he can fix the bill so it could win approval in the General Assembly, but he understands that lawmakers respect opinions of the state's medical and police communities.
"It's my hope that we go ahead and get (police and medical leaders) at least at a point where they can say, 'Well, maybe we don't endorse this bill but we have to acknowledge that it addresses the concerns we have expressed,' " Davis said.
Davis and other medical marijuana supporters want South Carolina to join 34 other state to allow prescriptions that could help ease seizures and other ailments. The senator, who has pushed for medical marijuana for several years, has pledged his bill would regulate medical marijuana in South Carolina from seed to sale.
Without the support of state medical and law enforcement leaders, however, the bill's chances are slim, the Senate's leader said.
"Anything can happen, but it will be very tough," Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said Wednesday.
State medical leaders are worried about a lack of clinical evidence on the effectiveness of medical marijuana. Law enforcement officials are worried about potential overdosing criminal activity and traffic accidents. S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson called marijuana “the most dangerous drug” in America.
But three out of four South Carolinians back medical marijuana, according to a 2016 Winthrop University poll.
After the Senate hearing, a group of clergy for different faiths gathered in the Statehouse to support medical marijuana as a form of compassion for the sick.
"It's not 'can we do it', it's 'we must do it,' " said Rabbi Eric Mollo of Tree of Life Synagogue in Columbia. "We are behind the times, there is no sufficient excuse to say otherwise."